Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Return

In associating with a monastic community there can be a certain sense of fascination or romanticism at the outset, particularly when ones lifelong frame of reference is devoid of any monastic knowledge or experience. In my own case, what little knowledge I had was tainted by well-intentioned professors who insisted that monasticism was little more than the fruit of extreme stoicism.

Then I began to read history for the sake of understanding for myself. At the beginning I honestly didn’t see or understand how I was being led in this exploration. Hindsight, they say, is always 20/20.

My introduction to monastic spirituality began with the Celtic hermits. These hermits introduced me to the Desert Fathers and Mothers. The eremitical life was especially appealing to me for a number of personal reasons. My exploration took me on to Pachomius and monasticism in the East. After this long exploration I came upon St. Benedict and the monastic expression that he founded in Western Europe.

Any movement will have extremists and it’s easy to draw conclusions about a whole that are not wholly accurate. This is especially true when we are looking for reasons to justify our chosen preferential reasoning - conditioned reasoning that can easily lay stumbling blocks that hinder the personal freedom that is true freedom.

Moving beyond our conditioned mental conclusions, especially when these conclusions have some theological or denominational faith-base to them, is not always a comfortable experience. It is, more often, uncomfortable and challenging. It can really upset our lives. It has the potential to upset those closest to us.

It is, at the same time, deeply fulfilling in ways that are difficult to describe. It brings with it an interior knowing that goes beyond any mental knowing, a knowing that will not allow us to rest until we say yes to its beckoning.

Monastic spirituality has an inherent nature about it that draws the heart and soul into its solitude, into its routine and structure that lead us into deeper solitude and contemplative fruit. It speaks to our deepest self. It quietly and unimposingly calls us. Its invitation can be summed up in one word. Return.

Return to God.
Return to prayer.
Return to one’s authentic self.

Is it possible to accomplish this trinity of returns without entering into or associating oneself with a body of cloistered religious, without some common structure, without a rule to guide us? It may be. But, looking at the overall context of Christian history, it is more highly probable, without a community and a rule to assist and guide, to find ourselves wandering about in directionless little circles in the aimless wilderness of self[1] where we lead ourselves according to our own interests and write our own rule of life as we go.

[1] See RB Ch. 1, The Kinds of Monks

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Little Lent

It is interesting that the prescribed daily reading[1] in the Rule of St. Benedict, on the occasion of the First Sunday in Advent and the beginning of this New Liturgical Year (November 30, 2008), has to do with observing Lent. It has to do with penitential living. Benedict insists that “the life of a monk ought to be a continuous Lent”[2], but allows that there should be at least “seasons” when more specific ascetic activity would become both a personal and collective focus in the lives of his disciples.

In the tradition of the Eastern Church, Advent is observed as “Little Lent.” The tradition makes sense, at least to me, and is certainly in line with Benedict’s thought. We are preparing ourselves for the commemoration and celebration of the First Appearing of Christ. “The negative effort at renouncing sin finds expression in positive acts.”[3] It seems only appropriate to make some kind of offering of ourselves during this seasonal remembrance, to spend time in recollection, reconciliation, and reparation.

There is no personal penance or oblation that we can offer that will atone for our sins.[4] Asceticism, though, isn’t about atoning for our sins. It is about awareness, preparedness, and watchfulness. It is about the earnest development of a purer and more pious consciousness. It concerns itself with necessarily improving our lives because of our sins.

In anticipating the commemoration of Christ’s First Appearing as the gentle and quiet Lamb of God slain by his enemies, we are, in essence, anticipating his Second Appearing as the Lion of the Tribe of Judah who will destroy his enemies. This time, “The Savior will not come to be judged again, but to judge those by whom he was judged. At his own judgment he was silent; then he will address those who committed the outrages against him when they crucified him and will remind them: You did these things, and I was silent.”[5]

The words of Christ in the Gospel reading for the First Sunday in Advent are poignant, calling us to the Lenten mindset spoken of by St. Benedict. “Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come.”[6]

[1] RB Ch. 49
[2] RB 49:1
[3] Adalbert de Vogue, Reading Saint Benedict, p. 243
[4] Ephesians 2:8-9
[5] St. Cyril, Liturgy of the Hours, p. 143
[6] Mark 13:33-37

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Benedictine Ideals

One of the things that Saint Benedict offers us in the Rule is a set of ideals that never cease to challenge us. He invites us to something, to someone, that is always, at the same time, both beyond ourselves and within ourselves.

We know Christ by faith and we trust in the verity of God revealed in Scripture. We are convinced by his divine activity that the Scriptures are true, that he has come to save us, and that the life of salvation calls us to enter into the life that is his life.[1] His life, conceived in us, becomes our life[2] and we can’t possibly help but to conclude, if we are honest in our appraisal, that the development of his life in us, the ultimate ideal, is too important to ignore or take lightly.

Benedictine’s Rule, although primarily designed as the guidelines for life lived within the monastic enclosure, is an invaluable aid in cultivating the realization of the ultimate ideal in our lives. It’s rubrics and schedules, precepts and principles, although difficult to adhere to precisely here in the workaday world outside of the monastery, still provide a certain definable and attainable form and cadence to life.

The precise form and cadence of the Rule, particularly concerning the Opus Dei, continually invites and challenges us to invest more of ourselves in actuating the monastic ideals intended to lead us in the realization of the ultimate monastic ideal. Prayer and prayerfulness, are, more than anything else, the heart and soul of Benedict’s monastic spirituality.

We short ourselves, do ourselves an injustice, when we rationalize our way around, or entirely out of, consistently performing at least some part, or parts, of the Work of God.[3]


[1] John 8:32
[2] Luke 17:33
[3] Guidelines For Oblates Of St. Benedict, Sec. D, para. II